The University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) faces criticism for its plan to develop Center Street south of campus as part of its expansion efforts.
UNR administrators insisted, however, its planning efforts were conducted in public and approved by the Board of Regents in 2014 with community input. UNR President Marc Johnson also said that the university values its historic resources.
An examination into these claims shows that’s the not whole story.
Were UNR’s Meetings Open?
UNR’s master plan has no mention of what it will do with the historic homes on Center Street. A rendering in the plan shows a mall-like setting for the area.
UNR’s Director of External Relations, Heidi Gansert, said UNR held a number of open meetings as part of its master planning process. Historic homes don’t appear to have been mentioned until after the plan was approved.
Despite calling them “open meetings,” UNR later said the meetings were not open meetings under the technical definition of Nevada’s open meeting law.
UNR President Marc Johnson and Gansert repeatedly said they held public meetings during their planning process.
“We had many open meetings,” Gansert said in March. “It’s been well publicized as far as our desire to move south. We’ve been working on this since 2014. We feel like we’ve had a very open and collaborative process. We’ve had a completely public planning process.”
After these claims, ThisisReno requested copies of UNR’s planning meeting agendas, minutes and list of attendees, components of Nevada’s open meeting requirements.
UNR couldn’t produce agendas or minutes but instead sent copies of email notifications about the planning meetings held on campus.
The notices were sent only to UNR faculty and staff.
According to UNR spokesperson Kerri Garcia, “The University does not have agenda or minutes from the open campus forums. Because the forums were not meetings of a public body subject to the open meeting law, statutory notice, agenda and minutes were not required.”
Participants of the planning process, which included student representatives, were also invited, according to Garcia, but there does not appear, despite UNR’s claims, an effort to involve the broader community beyond identified groups and individuals, such as the City of Reno and RTC.
The city’s Historical Resources Commission is not listed as a participant.
UNR did not offer other meeting invitations beyond the internal staff email announcements from 2014. See the timeline below for more on how the meetings were announced.
Were Historic Homes Discussed During Planning?
ThisisReno asked UNR when the topic of historic homes was brought up during the planning process.
Critics said they were only made aware of potential plans to remove the homes when they saw Center Street renderings with an open mall and no homes.
“What’s been most frustrating over the past months is learning that no one from UNR or the City of Reno evaluated the historic resources in the Gateway area before deciding the area could be a blank canvas for new development,” said historian Dr. Alicia Barber. “In the meeting I attended in President Johnson’s conference room on February 16th, we were shown photos of houses throughout town that were said to look like the houses in the Gateway, implying that the houses there aren’t unique or deserving of any kind of special treatment.”
Barber expressed the same concern two years ago when UNR announced plans to potentially demolish historic campus buildings.
When asked about concerns about the historic homes on Center Street, Gansert said that she could not recall the issue being raised during the planning process.
City Manager Andrew Clinger, who is listed as being a part of the planning group, said that his recollection of UNR’s planning meetings was that they focused on “high level” planning. He, too, said he did not recall the homes being discussed.
In short, there’s no evidence the fate of the homes was considered a part of UNR’s planning process. UNR admitted as much in an email this week.
“The Master Plan Update is a broad planning document that identifies concepts,” said UNR spokesperson Kerri Garcia. “Given the conceptual nature of the document, no plans have been finalized regarding any of the current structures. The University will consider impacted structures as it develops the area.”
Barber characterizes the planning process as incomplete.
“The Mary Sherman House at 847 North Center Street has been listed on the city and state historic registers since 1999, and the professional architectural historian who the city’s Planning Department hired to do an emergency survey of the Gateway this March determined that eleven other houses in the neighborhood are potentially eligible for the National Register,” she said. “That kind of historical evaluation should have been performed years ago, when UNR first began to purchase properties in the area.
“There is a state statute (NRS 383.121) requiring UNR to notify and cooperate with the State Historic Preservation Office any time its plans may endanger historic resources, which is clearly the case here, even if UNR intends to move the houses rather than demolish them.”
As to the openness of the planning process, despite UNR’s claims, it appears to have been more of a campus affair with selected constituent groups, and UNR’s claims to openness appear to be a stretch considering their own documentation.
As to the historic homes, the City Council said it would like more evidence that UNR is cooperating with historic preservationists. Mayor Hillary Schieve, during the last council meeting on the matter, that said she was “disappointed” with the process.
But she quickly changed her tone and praised UNR.
Said Barber, “The university, even though it is a state entity, must receive a Certificate of Appropriateness from the City of Reno’s Historical Resources Commission before making any exterior changes to the Mary Sherman House.
“That covers any actions ranging from replacing a window, to relocation, all the way to demolition. These aren’t just gentle suggestions; they are part of state law and city ordinance, and UNR should take them seriously. What’s more, they should want to.”
May 21, 2014: UNR announces master plan open forum for June 10. It is part of an email that was sent to UNR faculty and staff.
May 29, 2014: UNR announces plans, online, to build a new residence hall that would replace White Pine and Lincoln halls. According to the university, “Developed in consultation with faculty experts in seismology and engineering, the concept considers the future of Lincoln and Manzanita Halls… Manzanita Hall will … be evaluated as part of the long-term planning for student housing. Possible future options include re-purposing the facility to a less intensive use or removal.” The cagey announcement was met with outcry. According to historian Dr. Alicia Barber, “immediate public outcry to save the two 19th century buildings, both listed in the National Register of Historic Places, included a student-led petition, an editorial in the Reno Gazette-Journal, and a flurry of activity on the part of local and state preservation groups.”
June 15, 2014: The Associated Press quotes Barber in response to UNR’s announcement, “It is very surprising that the university has not tried to engage anyone in the historic preservation community or the university’s alumni.”
June 19, 2014: UNR commits to preserve Lincoln and Manzanita Halls after community criticism.
August 7, 2014: UNR announces master plan open forum for August 12. It is part of an email that was sent to UNR faculty and staff.
August 12, 2014: UNR announces master plan open forum for August 12, the same day. It is part of an email that was sent to UNR faculty and staff.
September 3, 2014: UNR announces master plan open forum for September 15. It is part of an email that was sent to UNR faculty and staff.
September 9, 2014: UNR announces master plan open forum for September 15. It is part of an email sent to UNR faculty and staff.
September 18, 2014: UNR’s expansion plans are announced in the Northern Nevada Business Weekly. Provost Kevin Carman said the plan has open-ended recommendations and “others will be more intentionally vague…”
December 4, 2014: The Board of Regents approves the master plan update. President Johnson also gets a public evaluation of his performance. It is noted that, “President Johnson is doing an excellent job…. The only concern of significance that came out of the evaluation arose on campus regarding strategic visioning. Not all constituents feel they have been included in the process and understand the vision, this includes mid-management and faculty. Having everyone understand and buy in to their personal parts in the vision and its implementation is crucial. Budget is a little light in relation to the strategic plan. Some are questioning how the strategic plan will be accomplished if funding is not available.”
March 2, 2015: UNR Provost Carman and Reno City Manager Andrew Clinger discuss the plan on KUNR. Provost Carman maintains a stance of preserving the former residence halls on campus.
July 20, 2015: UNR submits an RFQ for “pre-design services for a new College of Business building to be constructed within an area known in the University Master Plan as the Campus Gateway Precinct.”
September 14, 2015: UNR’s plans to expand campus south are announced in an RGJ article. There’s no mention of what will be done with existing properties.
November 6, 2015: The City of Reno publishes a plan to “closer align University and City.”
January 14, 2016: The City’s Historical Resources Commission gets information from City of Reno planning staff about the city’s regional center plan. Its crafts language to insert into the document that prioritizes preservation of historic structures in the Gateway area.
February 3, 2016: Downtown Makeover posts an article, one of the first that demonstrates potential development of Center Street in place of the historic homes: “Preserving History: The Responsible Way to Redevelop UNR’s Gateway District,” which indicates that “the concept calls for the closure of Center Street, turning it into a pedestrian-friendly zone, and building up dense retail and commercial that supports UNR’s growing student population…. The Victorians on Center and Lake could just as easily be readapted to host small retail. There’s also enough room on these lots to build additional smaller structures to support the existing historical buildings. It doesn’t have to be a choice between preservation and development. It can be both. Moving the homes is not an alternative to demolition. It would destroy the connection the properties have to the University.” [Emphasis in original.]
February 3, 2016: The Reno Planning Commission hears information about the Gateway plan, and the language proposed by the HRC is added to consider historic interests and encourage collaboration between the HRC and UNR. The language also says that “relocation of historic resources should be encouraged only in lieu of demolition.”
February 16, 2016: UNR meets with historic preservationists, shows them a slideshow of photos of homes in Reno that look similar to the historic homes on Center Street. Administrators reiterate their intention to build a new College of Business building on Center Street as a “signature building.”
March 9, 2016: The Reno City Council delays approval of the city’s regional center plan for the Gateway and requests an update in six weeks on how UNR is collaborating with historic preservation interests.
March 29, 2016: Heidi Gansert tells ThisisReno that UNR has no plans to demolish the historic homes.
April 7, 2016: The city’s Historical Resources Commission holds a public meeting at which UNR’s homes were debated. At the meeting, UNR President Marc Johnson defends the university’s planning process by saying, “I’m concerned about the notion that we’ve not had public hearings on the master plans.” He also says, “we would be willing to give these houses away, subject to Regents approval, if someone wanted them and wanted to move them” and “we jumped fairly quickly to looking at alternatives for relocating the houses, and I think the university agreed with the interests of the preservation community that none of us have an interest in demolishing any of those houses, if we can find proper relocations. At a time when it’s necessary to build academic buildings, that would be a good thing to consider.” Critics say the discussion of moving the homes is premature. The Commission votes to strengthen the language for preserving historic resources in the planning document.
April 27, 2016: The City approves the Gateway District plan but wants quarterly reports to see how UNR is working with historic preservation interests. Mayor Hillary Schieve says, “I want everybody to know we’re not tearing down homes, and the University is committed to saving those homes.”
May 3, 2016: UNR’s Kerri Garcia says, “Given the conceptual nature of the document, no plans have been finalized regarding any of the current structures. The University will consider impacted structures as it develops the area.”
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor, and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011, where he completed a dissertation on social media, journalism and crisis communications. In addition to managing This Is Reno, he holds a part-time appointment for the Mineral County University of Nevada Extension office.